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8th August 1999

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Concluding Richard Boyle's account of the adventures of Sindbad the Sailor in Serendib

Legend of the elephants' graveyard

Continued from last week

"It seemed to me a long time before I was once more set upon my feet by the elephant, and I stood as if in a dream watching the herd, which trampled off in another direction, and were soon hidden in the dense forest.

"Then, recovering myself, I looked about me, and found that I was standing upon the side of a great hill, strewn as far as I could see on either hand with the bones and tusks of elephants. 'This then must be the elephants' burying place,' I said to myself, 'and they must have brought me here that I might cease to persecute them, seeing that I want nothing but their tusks, and here lie more than I could carry away in a lifetime.'

"I made for the city as fast as I could go, not seeing a single elephant along the way, which convinced me that they had retired deeper into the forest to leave the way open to the Ivory Hill. I did not know how sufficiently to admire their sagacity. After a day and night I reached my master's house, and was received by him with joyful surprise.

"'Ah! Poor Sindbad,' he cried. 'I was wondering what could have become of you. When I went to the forest I found the tree newly uprooted and the arrows lying beside it, and I feared I should never see you again.'"

The following day Sindbad took his master to the Ivory Hill. On witnessing the wealth around him, the merchant was overjoyed and rewarded his slave with his freedom. When the monsoon winds were favourable, Sindbad sailed for home with a great hoard of ivory. However, he had become wary of the sea after his previous mishaps, so he disembarked at the first port-of-call, traded his ivory for gold, and joined a caravan for the remainder of the journey. Back in Baghdad he presented himself to the caliph, recounted his adventures, and after he was dismissed, retired to his mansion for good.

There has been much speculation over the centuries regarding the existence of elephants' graveyards in both Africa and Asia - the island under examination included. Sir James Emerson Tennent, writing in Ceylon (1959), reports that a Kandyan chieftain had informed him that "it was the universal belief of his countrymen that the elephants, when about to die, resort to a valley among the mountains to the east of Adam's Peak, which was reached by a narrow pass with walls of rock on either side, and that there, by the side of a lake of clear water, they took their last repose. It was not without interest that I afterwards recognized this tradition in the story of Sindbad."

Tennent also mentions how "a native who accompanied Mr. Cripps (probably George Hinde Cripps, Government Agent of the Southern Province) when hunting in the forests of Anuradhapura, intimated that he was then in the immediate vicinity of the spot 'to which the elephants come to die,' but that it was so mysteriously concealed that although everyone believed in its existence, no one had ever succeeded in penetrating to it."

In The Jungle Tide (London: 1930), John Still reveals that he had heard of a "mysterious cavern in the lost valley" near Sri Pada where elephants went to die, and had attempted to find it without success. He came to believe, as others have, that the legend of the elephants' graveyard was a universal, collective one. His theory was that the legend was "one of those which seem to attach to particular geological formations, and are carried about the world by itinerant story-tellers until they grow naturalised in every clime, or perchance spring anew in human minds as freshly remembered things that lie so deep within us that they are common experience to the ancestors of all peoples."

It has been suggested that the legend of the elephants' graveyard was probably inspired by several pachyderm characteristics known to the ancient world. One of these characteristics is the elephants' understanding that it is their tusks "that make desirable plunder," as Pliny the Elder notes in his Naturalis Historia. "When surrounded by a party of hunters, they post those with the smallest tusks in front, so that it may be thought not worthwhile to fight them," Pliny remarks. "And afterwards when exhausted they break their tusks by dashing them against a tree and ransom themselves at the price of the desired booty."

The other characteristic that appears to have inspired the legend is the tendency shown by elephants to bury their dead by covering them with earth and branches. As Aelian comments in De Natura Animalium, "An elephant will not pass by a dead elephant without casting a bough or some dust on the body." Allied to this is an inclination, when elephants come across a skeleton of one of their kind, to fondle and to carry about the bones and tusks. Sometimes tusks are removed and transported to distant places, apparently in order to discourage poachers. This characteristic especially may have influenced the author of the Sindbad tales when he embarked on his adaptation of the elephants' graveyard legend.

Tim Severin, the writer-explorer who has made a name for himself by re-enacting epic voyages, decided nearly 20 years ago to turn his attention to Sindbad. In his dhow Sohar, Severin sailed eastwards from Muscat to China, retracing Sindbad's voyages. Sohar docked at Galle for nearly a month, while Severin investigated the elephant-graveyard aspect of the story. His findings, which are recorded in his book, The Sindbad Voyage (London: 1982), are non-conclusive.

Severin interviewed the Veddahs, but none was able to cast much light on the subject, although one mentioned that he had seen an elephant carrying bones through the jungle. However, some game wardens showed Severin a waterhole from which, he was told, five trailer-loads of elephant bones had been extracted. This lends credence to another hypothesis - that the legend stems from the fact that during periods of severe drought, many elephants die in proximity to their jungle waterhole, at which they gather in vain.

I have already mentioned that the Sindbad tales are highly allegorical. This is an attribute that has been explored by Patrick Harrigan in his essay 'Lanka's Cosmography down the Ages' (1991). "Apart from revealing an actual familiarity with the geographical Lanka or Serendib, the story of Sinbad the Sailor also betrays an intimate knowledge on the storyteller's part of the principles applicable to Lankan cosmography down the ages," Harrigan states.

"Particularly, the allegorical dimension of Sindbad's meeting and befriending the legendary King of Serendib to become his messenger and ambassador to the Caliph of Baghdad and the entire Arab world deserves deep reflection. Like Attar's poem The Conference of the Birds, the marvellous journey to meet the King of Paradise is also an allegory mapping of the yearning soul's journey to meet its King.

"Sinbad the Sailor's fabulous story is of special interest to students of cosmography, for within it he confides to listeners a description not only of what (or who) is to be found in this enchanted Serendib, but also how to arrive there and find it, i.e. 'the source of his marvellous wealth'. He tells, for example, how he had to survive many adventures only to reach the point of despair and certain death before plunging into the magical waters that would whirl him deep beneath the surface to emerge in another world entirely of staggering wealth and felicity.

"Sindbad's account of Serendib is fully in agreement with the principles employed down the ages by cosmographers to paint an in-depth picture of Lanka. Simultaneously, they sought to describe both the inner and outer journeys of adventure and discovery for which this island is so famous the world over. The same 'shining point' at the centre of the outer geographical world was clearly seen to be a functional analogue - and therefore a magical gateway of sorts - to the much greater Lanka hidden within the human heart. That Lanka, still very much alive and reachable, is the real source of marvellous wealth, mystery, and majesty."

The answers to the puzzles concerning Sindbad's adventures in Serendib will never be known. What is significant is that the island figures prominently in the Sindbad tales, and that it is portrayed as a storybook kingdom governed by a wise ruler, a place where the magical and the miraculous are commonplace. For it is evident that Serendib was regarded as not only a centre of early trade, but also as an enchanted island abounding in wisdom and majesty. - The End

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